I am an atheist and I was so exhausted by this book.
David G. McAfee’s Hi, I’m an Atheist: What That Means and How to Talk About it With Others is often sloppy, arrogant and patronizing. McAfee is so focused on proving atheism is better than religion that he undermines his own advice about how and why to talk to people about being an atheist. Very few experts on communication recommend founding a difficult conversation on the idea that one position is clearly better than the other and eventually the other person will change their mind, if they are smart enough.
McAfee lost me in the first chapter with his description of atheists “coming out.”
Although coming out as atheist has become commonplace, the term began in reference to homosexuals who disclose their sexual orientation to their family and friends—becoming “openly gay.”
So, the first flag is accepting the appropriation of LGBTQ+ culture and the second flag is flattening LGBTQ+ culture to “homosexuals.” Coming out in the LGBTQ+ community is a personal decision about being one’s authentic self in terms of sexuality and gender. Homophobia, transphobia, sexism and racism are alive and well in atheist and other secular spaces. Given the way McAfee addresses the intersection of LGBTQ+ and atheism, I don’t feel like he himself has risen above such cultural blind spots.
McAfee asserts that morality and love, among other things, are only true if they don’t rest on an idea of a divine judge or and afterlife. Essentially, my morality is better than a religious person’s morality because I do good with no promise of heavenly reward, and I love more truly because I know we won’t spend eternity together and accept love is worth the inevitable pain of loss. First, not every religion has a concept of reward or punishment in the afterlife, so as much as he occasionally references Judaism and Islam, he’s really talking about atheism in relationship to Christianity. Secondly, going into a conversation with someone you value holding the mindset that you are better than them is an essential ingredient for failure. McAfee does say that you might want to adopt an agreed to disagree position early on, but he spends much more time on why atheism is right. There is a short account from an atheist married to a Christian about how their marriage works. They respect each other, are honest with each other, and pick their battles. Unfortunately, that person didn’t write the book and doesn’t talk about how he initially introduced his atheism to his now wife.
A lot of this book made me feel like I’ve been lucky. I have had to deal with misconceptions about me because I don’t believe in a god or gods, but rarely have I had to deal with outright hostility. Even the deeply Southern parts of my family are mostly more culturally Christian, than religiously so. Furthermore, the members of my family who are evangelical Christians have stuck with living their faith instead of attempting to proselytize to me. I have had many positive relationships, familial, personal and professional, with people of various religious faiths. Even so, I still feel like I could use some help in gently talking with people I don’t know well about being an atheist and an Ethical Humanist. David G. McAfee did not write that book.
Thank you to NetGalley and St. Martin’s Press for the advance reader copy. I reviewed this voluntarily.